The Victory of Adwa: A Fresh Perspective

The Victory of Adwa A Fresh Perspective

By Haile Muluken
Mekelle University


In the history of the modern world, the victory of Adwa is best remembered for offering the seminal phenomenon that put the prevalent bias and prejudice towards black people into question. This change of perception towards the nature and capability of black people had also dramatic consequences in the political history of Africans and other peoples who suffered from racial contempt and colonial rule, and everything that goes with it.

This paper attempts to reassess how Africans and their continent were portrayed by the non-African peoples before the Ethiopian military, diplomatic and political exploits witnessed at the Battle of Adwa. It argues that the victory has paramount historical significance in changing the lots of black people for the better as it effectively challenged the hitherto hailed perceptions and valuations of the black people, their history, culture, and their human nature by the whites. Secondary and primary sources pertinent to the discussion are used to support a proposition that the psychological impact of the battle of Adwa, especially the commonly raised attributes to shame and glory, merits a slightly different reinterpretation.

It is quite unmistakable that discussing a grand and delicate subject like this is too big to tell exhaustively. Particularly, it is difficult to appreciate the exact changes caused by the victory of Adwa on different sections of the international community. Of course no sources, no sources, as there are no enough, can be sufficiently relied on to discern the psychology there are no enough, can be sufficiently relied on to discern the psychological changes witnessed in the self-perception of blacks and their characterization by others mainly due to victory of Adwa. How many contemporary black people did really receive the news of the victory at Adwa is not clear, leave alone its impact on their innermost thoughts about racial myths. Also, it may be questionable to singularly relate changes observed subsequent to the victory based on acceptable historical causal reasoning.

We can never be sure that the changes witnessed stand the test of the negative logic principle of causation. These and many other uncertain elements pose some limitations on assertions and counter assertions made in this paper. This, however, is part of the norm than the exception in other historical inquiries too. E.H. Carr has so accurately captured this problem of lack of internal data validity which underwrites the inherent limitation of historical claims in his phrase; ‘inbuilt ignorance’. Such and other limitations on the intellectual quality of historical writing, however, have never been hindrances to the production of historical knowledge by individuals highly acclaimed by the scholarly community. It seems a tacitly acknowledged principle that at least to write something with all its deficiencies is better than ignoring it altogether. Hence, this paper should be considered in the same light.

I. A Short Review of Racial Based Prejudices towards Black Peoples

This section explores how the black peoples were perceived by other peoples up the late nineteenth century. It aims at pinpointing the origins and intents of racial prejudices the black peoples were subjected to. Hence, the lack peoples were subjected to. Hence, the foregoing discussion is meant to give a reader a backdrop of racial attitudes against which the historical significance of the victory of Adwa has to be appreciated. 

Negative images about Africans/blackness existed among many non-black peoples of the world since ancient times. This view was shared by nearly all sections of society including philosophers, religious leaders, academics, and commoners alike. Since the times of Plato, Europeans believed that nature was a hierarchically structured chain of “being”. This gave them the impression that every being is not of the same value. European underestimation of the black people, although strong before, was said to be ‘scientifically” reinforced before the rise of the New Imperialism in the 19th century due to new currents in biological science. In the process of classifying races, skin color was taken as the chief parameter. It goes without saying that European biologists put their race on top of other races and assigned inferior qualities to peoples with dark or brown skin in regard to their appearance, aptitudes, and behavior.

Adwa Mountain Chain 

We find remarkable uniformity in Western literature, mainly before the twentieth century, depicting Africa and Africans with pejorative and stereotypical characterizations. The literature of this sort strongly featured omission, misinterpretation, distortion, and fantasy. The clear significance of such works lies in demonstrating the conventional opinion of white peoples that the underdevelopment of Africans was the logical outcome of their natural inferiority and the hostile environment they live in. Thus, the inhabitants of Africa were considered as bucolic peoples without reason, wit, or skill and with no experience of anything worth at all. A false notion that Africans lived like brute beasts without law and order, was taken as the standard feature of Africans by an average European.2 This view was later rejected by African intellectuals as a completely false view and a mere pretext for justifying that colonialism was a civilizing mission.3 It should be noted, however, that the problem of racial prejudice was not confined to the scholars and architects of imperial expansion.

Besides its pejorative tone, the colonial view about Africans suffers from overlooking diversity in Africa. What writers call ‘the African’ suffers from statistical abstraction or a figment of the imagination.4 On the other hand, the term ‘primitive’ was used, as some writers claimed, not pejoratively but because to them, there was no other word that stands fit to express the obvious differences between the Europeans and the Africans. Some rejected this view because it puts the Europeans in the exclusive realm of achieving material and cultural progress which Africans had to receive passively. 5

Such disposition regarded Africans as incapable of embracing ideas and practices essential to development; hence introducing modern (civilized) culture into this archaic zone was believed to be unthinkable because the gulf was too great to bridge. The inertia of the ‘dark’ continents was regarded as the immutable antithesis to the will for change, intelligence, guarded as the immutable antithesis to the will for change, intelligence, judgment, and motivation. This entire blunder was informed by the belief that Africans were in a primitive developmental stage of human history, i.e. low evolutionary stage with Stone Age culture and with immutable inherited predicaments for progress. Adjectives such as ‘smaller brain cells’, harder heads’, brutish features’, ‘animals sexuality’, ‘spawning fecundity’, ‘minds lacking the abilities to learn’, ‘to reason’, or ‘think abstractly, ‘ape-like’ etc because the usual catchwords to refer to African low developmental stage. In short, it was believed that the difference between the African and the European was believed to be biological determinism. Interestingly, different peoples of Africa were believed to possess identical inherited traits so that categorizing them into clan, lineage, race or tribe was justified.6

So low was the Europeans opinion about blacks that even education was thought to be of means to achieve social and cultural development in Africa. As conventional wisdom of the time has it lower races cannot learn the delicate complexities essential to civilization. Hence, it was only for the outward appearances like clothing’s, adornments, gadgetry…that Africans could acquire outward similarity with the Europeans but never in the essence of civilization; ‘At best an African would be a caricature of a civilized man’ In some instances, Europeans referred to Africans as a sleeping giant and formidable adversary, the intent being to inoculate a sense of threat, fear, and heroism among their peoples.

Of course, there were romantic descriptions about life in Africa such references about Africa as the beautiful, open, virgin, and golden land of grandeur, where better natural life exists. This was mostly true for southern and eastern Africa. However, these were the views of people who were unhappy about the withering away of former human values in Europe due to industrialization and urbanization. Thus, even the positive descriptions imagined Africa without Africans. The main preoccupation of this sort of literature was agitating the public to regain some of the lost social values in Europe. In essence, we understand that allusion to Africa positively and Africans negatively had the same Eurocentric goal: reclaiming, sustaining, and popularizing European culture at the expense of the Africans and their culture. 8

The unique (unchanged and natural) African life was explained in terms of the perennial isolation of the continent from developments abroad. The main cause for the isolation of Africa was believed to be the impregnability of the physical geography, the hostile climate, and its insects, rather than the strength of its people. Some have even mocked that time they would convince Africans to erect a monument for the mosquito and tse tse flies to effectively protecting the continent from foreign invasion. Hence, this age-old unique seclusion (also called privileged isolation) from foreign influence and greed was believed to have been the cause for the most natural example of life in Africa which has been developing according to man’s idea of life’s own plan for itself. 9 To posit Africans as a people who were not changed from the earliest forms of life Der Post wrote:

Indeed, it is odd when one considers the efficiency with which we dig up old ruins all over the world in order to get some idea of what ancient man and his world was like, and then remember that here in Africa, we have ancient man still alive, his ancient spirit burning right within him, and yet we leave his mind despised, ignored, and utterly neglected.10

Thus, it becomes clear that even aspects of fascination about Africans depict them as a people with stagnant culture as if the law of evolution applied to other people doesn’t work. To contrast the perceived static African soul with the dynamic European society the same writer holds:

A long period pf pure reason … was deep at heart working in his {the European] spirit, setting him at variance with his intuitions and instincts. The materialism of the Industrial Revolution already dominated his values and motives. His mastery of the physical means of life and his increasing annihilation of distance together with the conquest of what he understood to be time, had already brought man far down the broad way to exceeding his humanity and setting himself up as a god and controller of destiny. Walking into Africa in that mood he was by and large, quite incapable of understanding Africa, let alone of appreciating the raw material of mind and spirit with which this granary fate, this ancient treasure house of the lost original life, was richly filled.11

Like the view of Europeans about the African peoples, stated above, the physical land- – 5 – a mass of the African continent was given exaggerated uniqueness. The aim was to associate Africa with unique geology, biology, human history, and a unique soul. All along goes the theme of Africa’s old age- where old age implied something too old to change.12 A highly nuanced mention was made to tell that Africa is the last continent in the world to be incorporated into the process of human advancement which was in progress since about 9000 years ago. Unlike the other four continents where people lived in constant social experiments, Africans were thought of as if they remained alone and backward for reasons related to physical geography. Of course, it was stated that before the 15th century Europeans were frustrated from settling in Africa by the belief in the barbarity of Africans, poverty of the soil, and the heavy incidence of tropical diseases.13

battle of adwa worior

On the other hand, it was said that Africans did not leave the continent for other places due to the same factor- unsuitable physical geography. The African physical landscape and its climate were contrasted with the case in Europe to claim that the latter demanded mental creativity to be a matter of necessity for advancement. Such environmentally induced creativities include the compilation of calendars, organization, and division of labor, storing of resources, making of clothes, etc. On the opposite, life in the tropics was depicted as simple and easy which could be sustained without the inventions needed in the temperate region. Hence, it was believed that raising the African society from this stagnation had to await the guidance and knowledge of Europeans.14 

To a great extent, the inception of prejudice about black people can be traced to the myths engraved in the religious narratives of the origin and fate of the black people. It would be a cliché to say that the Chris tian and Judaic traditions directly related the origin of blacks to sin and curse from which derived the perpetual divine commission given to whites to enslave them. From the same myth it is sufficiently clear that as their skin color, other physical characteristics of blacks such as curly hair, red eyes, thick lips, etc were results of the deformation caused by a curse. As regards their internal character, the rabbi tradition equates black peoples to mute animals; inferior to whites but superior to animals. Thus, far from forbidding slavery, the Bible teaches how slaves should be treated by their masters. 15

Among other things, the myth had laid the ideological rationale for whites and Arabs to make Africa the land of slave raiding. If the Anglo-American protestant churches later condemned slavery it is because slavery had seized to be a historical necessity after the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Besides, they were more inspired by the values of the Enlightenment, rather than the teachings of the Bible. In retrospect, advances in science and archaeology have proved that the religious myth is nothing but a fabrication as the black peoples are proved to have been in existence before whites. It is curious that no attempt was made so far even by black Christians to correct the historical distortions and racial bias the Bible injected into the minds of millions.

Asians, who were themselves, victims of racial prejudice, had negative views about black peoples. In China, for instance, black slaves were viewed as savages and demons because of their physical appearance as early as the 12th century. America’s racist view that depicted blacks as inferior had been deeply entrenched since the 15th century. Therefore,  by the time of European imperial expansion, Africans were generally perceived as naturally inferior, backward, less human, and in a stage of low evolutionary development destined to be ruled by Europeans ‘White man’s burden’, to borrow their dictum. The same ‘primitive’, ‘barbarian, … views were applicable to Ethiopia.

To date, no one has provided conclusive scientific evidence to support the natural inequality of races. My view is that throughout history any stereotyped racial attitude that sought to legitimize inequality and exploitation under the guise of religious, scientific, or traditional formula had never been acceptable to the victims all over the world. It is therefore crystal clear that the black race suffered awful contempt and indignity. Not even philosophy, religion, and science could provide a solution to the ailment of Africans. In this age of humiliation, a spectacular and uncommon black victory like Adwa would certainly be a great story. It is thus against this background we can better illustrate the far-reaching significance of the battle of Adwa in the history of black peoples. Below I shall assess how Adwa sent a shocking message to pseudo-scientists and chauvinist white supremacists by disproving mistakenly held assumptions about the black peoples. N.B. in this paper the word ‘white’ is used to refer only to those who embraced the idea of Social Darwinism and framed their world outlook in racial terms.


II. Adwa for Ethiopia and the Rest of the Black Peoples

Viewed in the light of the racial attitudes discussed above the battle of Adwa leaves no doubt that it was fought between blacks and whites and this is its true historical significance. It was a rare event that gave an acid test to the rationality of racial inequality. Below we shall see how the entire war and the battle of Adwa gave the world the first strong and practical antidote to distorted racial attitudes.

Contrary to racist thoughts about black’s political, diplomatic, and military virtue, Adwa demonstrated that Africans could plan and execute state affairs in a complex manner. In the following paragraphs, I shall describe how Adwa falsified the European underrating of the political, diplomatic, and military calibers of Africans.

In political and diplomatic aspects, the Ethiopian leaders displayed extraordinary maneuvering skill in turning expansionists, who swore at the Berlin Conference not to turn against one another, to forsake their promises and turn to be rivals to one another before and after Adwa. That is why France, which gave secret official approval to Italian colonial enterprise, was kept a friend of Ethiopia. Also, Ethiopia exploited the material and political support of non-colonial powers like Russia. Besides, Ethiopians proved their political maturity by sustaining the military victory after Adwa diplomatically. Thus, while advancing its own territorial claims, Ethiopia apparently accompanied France in its march to Fashoda in1898.

Similarly, Ethiopians assisted the British forces in British Somaliland between 1900 and 1904 to liquidate Muhammad Abdullah Hassan’s rebellion. 17Although must only be taken as a temporary political and military expedience rather than fundamental policy blindness (it is beyond the scope of this paper to bring evidence for this argument). The political maturity and magnanimity of Ethiopians were epitomized by their sympathetic treatment of the Italian war prisoners during and after the battle. Contrary to European assumptions, Ethiopians’ benevolent treatment of war prisoners and their constant offer of truce and peace demonstrated the lofty ideals and meritorious qualities that an African chief, believed hitherto as savage and warlike, could possess.18

Emperor Menelik II

Emperor Menelik II

We also find similar fascination by European travelers about the superb intelligence system of the Ethiopians and its informed use to their military tactical advantages. It only suffices to quote the remarks of a British traveler who gathered intimate data before and shortly after the battle of Adwa: 

The Abyssinian spy department is excellently managed and arranged, and the information is obtained by people friendly to them on the other side of their frontier. Women are greatly made use of to obtain news, and they have the chance of getting employment in the officers’ households, and some of them follow the troops in their marches in the field. The arrival or departure of every regiment at the base is known, and its destination is soon found out, and the number of guns that accompany the army. This news is passed on from one to another, and the frontier is so sparsely guarded, getting across it is easy enough. It is also a very hard thing to get hold of the getting across it is easy enough. It is also a very hard thing to get hold of the movements of Abyssinians and their numbers; they change their camps so rapidly and march at such a pace and receive reinforcements so quickly, that correct information of their numbers one day may be entirely wrong, and engagements made by Europeans to attack a position that was held in force may be found to be entirely useless, as the enemy may have in one night taken up another forty miles away. The Italians only made use of their native troops as scouts; but to watch an enemy like the Abyssinian is no easy job, as he employs the same means of scouting and can always concentrate a large number of men at any given point as his enemy, and while the attention of the scouts is taken up and are falling back on their European support, the bulk of the enemy may have changed their position and have to be again refound, and the whole work has to be begun over again. 19

On the military plane, the victory testified the skill African forces could acquire in the use of modern arms. Ethiopians had modern arms. Ethiopians had a varied collection of modern weapons acquired from purchase, donation, and captured from invaders after the victories at Gura, Gundert, and Dogali. Although basically traditional, the Ethiopian army at Adwa had demonstrated its mastery of modern warfare techniques learned from long years of military experience. Through time, Ethiopians had become familiar with technical applications of modern firearms that in Adwa they had deployed a very strong and large number of cavalry and infantry forces. As stated by Bruce Vandervort, about 100,000 Ethiopian soldiers fought at Adwa out of which about 70,000 carried modern repeating rifles while the rest fought with traditional weapons-spear, sword, and buffalo-hide shield. This made Ethiopians the only Africans who used artillery at the time of European colonization of Africa.20 The following quote shows how much the events in Adwa disproved the European assessment of black people’s military prowess

On the military plane, the victory testified the skill African forces could acquire in the use of modern arms. Ethiopians had modern arms. Ethiopians had a varied collection of modern weapons acquired from purchase, donation, and captured from invaders after the victories at Gura, Gundert, and Dogali. Although basically traditional, the Ethiopian army at Adwa had demonstrated its mastery of modern warfare techniques learned from long years of military experience. Through time, Ethiopians had become familiar with technical applications of modern firearms that in Adwa they had deployed a very strong and large number of cavalry and infantry forces. As stated by Bruce Vandervort, about 100,000 Ethiopian soldiers fought at Adwa out of which about 70,000 carried modern repeating rifles while the rest fought with traditional weapons-spear, sword, and buffalo-hide shield. This made Ethiopians the only Africans who used artillery at the time of European colonization of Africa.20 The following quote shows how much the events in Adwa disproved the European assessment of black people’s military prowess.

Not surprisingly, the sophistication of the intelligence system, acquisition of ample modern arms; effective horizontal and vertical army command structure; the sheer upper hand in the number of troops, and rich military tradition helped Ethiopians to fight the Italians on their own terms. What worried the Ethiopian army commanders was not victory but the refusal of their enemies to accept a deal to reduce the number of causalities. Would there be any other event where a war was fought in so humane ways?

As a result, the defeat of a European power by Africans at Adwa turned out to be the most captivating story of major colonial wars due to its racial implications and the outcome of the military theater itself. From a military perspective, the battle of Adwa was the most costly engagement in terms of force-ratio casualties in 19th was the most costly engagement in terms of force-ratio casualties in 19 century. The century. The Italian army suffered 50 percent casualties, far higher than those suffered by participants in Eylau, the greatest blood-letting of the Napoleonic era which cost the French army casualties of 33.8 percent, and its losses at Waterloo were just under 30 percent. ‘Butchery, slaughterhouse, slaughter’ were the words that recurred in the memories of the Italian combatants at Adwa.22 The battle was also significant for its racial implications.

Perhaps, no chauvinist could have thought of an African ‘savage chief’ possessing incredible political astuteness and military efficiency. Hence, the spectacular victory of Adwa forced white supremacists to question their understanding of blacks more seriously. It forced them to enter into a period of negotiations with Ethiopia. It made Europeans reassess their prejudices towards African political culture23. For this reason, studies made after the victory show that European impressions about African cultural values showed marked improvement, although they did not accord the status of full racial equality. As a testimony of change of perception, contemporary Europeans admitted that Ethiopians were civilized peoples not only in the techniques of warfare but also in the norms and morality they displayed in international diplomacy. In essence, the whole expansionist thesis and the Adwa antithesis was to turn the ‘civilized-savage’ dichotomy, of Europeans and Africans into reverse order.

The extent to which the changed image of Ethiopia, quoted above, could be attributable to the spectacle of the victory at Adwa becomes clear if we contrast it with the way Belgians assessed the Ethiopian situation about half a century earlier. Lured by the revival of trade in the Red Sea region and the immense natural resource of the Ethiopian hinterland, Belgium was perhaps the first country to conduct a feasibility study to establish a colony in Ethiopia. The study included investigation of the political situation, the level of unity, the prospect of international reaction to Belgian colonial adventure, and the technological know-how of Ethiopians in using modern firearms. Based on a long study of such variables, the Belgian Foreign Affairs Ministry concluded that colonizing Ethiopia would not be difficult mainly due to: the illiteracy of Ethiopians in making use of state-of-the-art weapons; lack of experience in making modern warfare; Ethiopians inability to take advantage of their geography to conduct mountain warfare and their perennial problem of in-fighting among themselves.24

According to the same study, it was not only easy to colonize Ethiopia but also to keep it so against local resistance and external threats. Against the promising circumstances reported by the study, however, the Belgian government changed its colonial program in Ethiopia in favor of the same project in Guatemala. My point of interest here is that while similar derogatory views might have been entertained by other colonial countries, it was the victory of Adwa that practically demonstrated that the Ethiopian defense was not vulnerable to internal division, difficult terrain, and ignorance in using modern weaponry. J. Jaenene seems right in arguing that had the Belgians tried to translate their program in Ethiopia into a reality, they would have encountered unforeseen difficult conditions.25

battle of adwa worior 1
Mountain Nyala. Photo by Delphin Ruche.

Mountain Nyala. Photo by Delphin Ruche.

We also see that the high-level cabinet meetings and diplomatic dispatches by Europeans and Americans after 1896 clearly show a change in their assessment of Ethiopians. Numerous reports depict that Americans and Europeans found it very difficult to advance their interest in Ethiopia militarily owing to the strong fighting ability of highland Ethiopians. The same assessment forced the British government to concede a significant part of its territorial claims to Ethiopia during the border negotiations with Menelik. This is a significant part of its territorial claims to Ethiopia during the border negotiations with Menelik. This is evident in the discussions and negotiations made between the Ethiopian and British delegates to delimit the borders along with British Somaliland, Kenya, and Sudan.26 Viewed from this angle, it may be argued that the victory of Adwa not only had sustained the independence of Ethiopia but also had contributed a great deal to its territorial aggrandizement and the respect it enjoyed in its international relations afterward.

so acute was Europians’ nervousness about Ethiopians that the major international powers conspired to disable the arms importation to Ethiopia after the battle of Adwa. The perceived threat Europeans saw in the importation of arms to Ethiopia was the possibility that the Ethiopians could use imported arms to extend their territories into the neighboring colonized African countries or that the Ethiopians would engage in acts of cross-border raids into European colonies. To conceal their fear, the major powers rationalized their arms embargo on Ethiopia with pretexts such as Ethiopian rulers would use weapons to subjugate and exploit defenseless ethnic groups heavy-handedly; acquisition of better arms by Ethiopians would intensify slave trade; the Ethiopians would encourage anti-colonial movements by supplying arms in the neighboring countries and that greater arms circulation would have a higher prospect of risking the security of caravan merchants.27

Definitely, the blockade had in the long run adversely affected Ethiopia’s defense during the 1935-1941 war against fascist invasion. However, the resolute stance of the West in depriving Ethiopia of its right to purchase defensive weapons unmistakably shows that Ethiopia after Adwa had become a power to be reckoned with. This precisely shows a marked departure from their previous demeaning attitude towards Ethiopia. This and the realization of a possibility that other African countries could follow the unpleasant example set by Ethiopia is indeed the fruit of Adwa. 

On the other hand, the view that the victory of Adwa made Ethiopians overconfident that they were easily beaten during the 1935-36 war does not seem to be substantiated by evidence. Although Haile Sellasie was well aware of the impending war with Italy, his efforts to arm the country with needed weapons were rebuffed, thanks to imperialist confronts to arm the country with needed weapons was rebuffed, thanks to imperialist conspiracy. For the most part, up to 1935, the only weapons permitted for import to Ethiopia on a restricted scale were the types practically needed just to keep public order, personal safety, suppress the rebellion, and attain a fair exercise of a legitimate government authority.28

III. Adwa for Italy and the Rest of the World

The kind of bewilderment major powers found themselves following the victory of Adwa can be glimpsed from the remarks of The New York Times of Sunday, March 8, 1896:

For months International affairs have been growing more and more unsettled here in Europe, and now Italy’s tragic misadventure has thrown them altogether out of balance. If the battle of Adowah was fought on the slopes of the Alps it could have wrought more blind confusion and diplomatic panic.29

The view that the victory of Adwa assumed paramount significance due to its implication to the then prevalent notion of racial inequalities, although fundamental, cannot be fully entertained when we retrospectively ponder over forces for and against the victory. The victory of Adwa was cheered congratulatory responses not only from blacks but also freedom-loving whites and yellow people. The Russian state, which gave invaluable support to Ethiopia, sent a message of compliments and solidarity to the Ethiopian army. That diverse but united ethnic group of Ethiopia scored a shining victory was taken to have a practical lesson to the multiethnic state of Russia. Similarly, in Japan, Adwa gave Ethiopians the image of being the first non-Caucasian peoples to defeat the Europeans; it inspired the Japanese in their battle against Russia in 1904. Even in later days, as was the case with blacks, the Japanese condemned the vengeful fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and expressed their solidarity with Ethiopians by sending weapons. Similarly, the youth of Australia are reported to have been fascinated by the story of the African victory at Adwa and to have sent a letter to Menelik stating their willingness to fight on the side of Ethiopia.30

Therefore, it would be imprudent to assess that the victory of Adwa had caused a sense of shame to all whites. The victory/defeat and its consequence of pride/shame cannot be neatly and categorically attributed to either blacks or whites. The fact that the battle of Adwa was not just between blacks and whites can further be understood when we Adwa was not just between blacks and whites can further be understood when we consider the anti-expansionist stance of a significant number of Italians during and before the battle of Adwa, as discussed in the next section.

While Adwa’s psychological impact was reverberating all over the world, it was markedly pronounced in Italy. I shall summarize how Adwa was remembered by different sections of the Italian population through time. In this regard, Alessandro Triulzi’s article ‘Adwa from Monument to Document’ is revealing because it dashes some of our previously held misconceptions about the position of Italians on the war. From his article, we learn that the idea and practical move of colonial expansionism was not the wish of the majority of Italians. As it is the case everywhere, society had never been single-minded over any question. Those Italians who opposed imperialism from day one resisted government attempts to give the overseas expansion a mass public backing. To the dismay of the Italian government, its colonial annexation had been a controversial subject among Italians from its inception, at least since Italians occupied Massawa in 1885.31

Underscoring the fact that the true demand of poor Italians was for bread, work, justice, freedom, enabling environment for intellectual, political, and moral improvement, socialists, republicans, Catholics, students, and commoners had opposed colonial expansion. It is a tribute to mention that the socialist spokesman- Filippo Turati, openly wished a ‘severe and resolute defeat’ e- (before the battle of Adwa took place) to Italy so that it would stop using arms for destroying the freedom of other peoples. Sadly, however, local opposition did not yield the intended result. However, the failure of public, civic and parliamentary opposition to stop colonial expansion was not an indicator that a strong majority of Italians were in favor of aggression. Futility public protest became inevitable because real power was not vested in the pseudo parliament of Italy.32 Leave alone the civil population, many members of the Italian army involved at the battle of Adwa had no commitment to their assigned mission, as observed by a contemporary traveler: 

These people are conscripts and not volunteers and taken away from their country to fight what they consider an unjust war against a warlike enemy whom they stand in great awe of. 33

On the other hand, there were forces who planned and executed overseas expansion. Their aims were diverse and conflicting. On the one hand, Italy wanted to solve its agrarian problems by settling its poor peasants over African soil. Still more, the Italian bourgeoisie and state aristocracy were ready to risk more deaths for the sake of restoring the country’s national glory by elevating the country to a ‘great powers status; the then political belief holds that acquisition of overseas territory was a sign of greatness. As a result, despite vocal local opposition, the eventual military confrontation with Ethiopia was inevitable because the then Italian King, the ultimate sovereign, gave strong support to expansionism. Hence, the war plan was executed yielding unanticipated defeat of a historic proportion.34

Thus, it would appear to be an absurd venture to holistically characterize the Italian public opinion about their government’s imperial policies in general and their policies towards Ethiopia in particular. This being said, however, it appears to be instructive to highlight some of the most pronounced reactions of some of the Italian public. The response of different segments of Italians before and immediately after the battle of Adwa is discussed above. In retrospect, it seems that we can assess public opinion in Italy about the battle of Adwa based on their reaction to the second round of conquest of 1935-1941 since it was launched with a stated objective of avenging the defeat Italy suffered at Adwa.

The fascists, like rulers before them, were faced with criticism for their Ethiopian invasion. This opposition came from different groups of society for different reasons. A good number of Italians had placed their hopes in their migration to the New World. For such peoples, the attraction of migration to the USA or Canada was more appealing than the promise of the Italian colonial empire. Hence, they were opposed to war and did not wish to migrate to the Italian overseas empire. Besides, there was a significant number of others who were always rejected imperial expansion because they stood ideologically opposed to fascism. These include communists, anarchists, socialists, and republicans. Hence, Mussolini totalitarian barely succeeded in enlisting the support of the entire masses for its imperial agenda.35

The fascist authorities had propagandized to brainwash the public into supporting the Ethiopian war. Such propaganda centered on enticing the sentiment of the people by appealing to peculiar economic, political, and social conditions of different sections of the Italian peoples. As a result, during the initial stages of the invasion, which saw unprecedented military success, a good number of Italians were won over into supporting the war. The initial high level of public support given to the fascists under points people’s belief that Mussolini had fulfilled his promise of placing ‘the mother of civilization on a par with other great powers of the world. Besides, the initial public outburst supporting the war was a measure of public satisfaction gained from avenging the ranking defeat of Italian colonialism at Adwa in 1896. Excited by wartime nationalism some fascists boasted of ‘lofe to be their friend and death their lover’. such state of affairs induced authorities to intensify warfare in excess use of modern and illegal armaments to the extent that the Italian campaign in Ethiopia became ruthless against ‘geography itself.

However, any sober analysis of public psychology should distinguish between people’s temporary euphoric reaction to war victory from that of what the public wanted under normal circumstances which is pragmatically related to the material interest and ideological perspectives of the ordinary masses. That is to say that concerted public backing to any project is the function of the material reward involved in the project for every individual, the congruence of expansionism to the prevalent ideological perspective, and consideration of the cost of expansion to individual citizens concerned.

Measured by these pragmatic considerations, it appears that many Italians threw their support behind Mussolini while the expansion was not in the best interest of the predominant masses. Hence, the kind of support many Italians showed during the early phase of the campaign may not be a characteristic feature of public opinion towards imperial expansion. No previous regimes enjoyed public support for their military adventures in Africa. The turn of events during the recent history of Italy and the overall stage of development Italy had attained by the time was not such that the mainstream Italian mindset had sufficient imperial orientation. Leaving the masses alone. Mussolini’s recent past, when he was a socialist, proves that he was opposed to imperial expansion which he considered as madness, and castigated its supporters as professional warmongers. Of course, he was arrested for this position during the war with Turkey over Libya in 1911 12. It is clear that Mussolini’s anti-imperial stand was part of the norm among most Italians than the exception. The groups who were staunch supporters of imperial conquest were monarchist soldiers like Pietro Badoglio and former nationalist politicians.37

Empress Taytu

Empress Taytu

It is not surprising, then, that during the early years of the 1930s, fascist leaders were busy building imperial mindset among peoples. In this process one key difficulty encountered was redirecting the best hopes of Italians from the Americas to Africa. Whereas a series of migrations had given Italians suitable social infrastructure in the Americas, the Horn of Africa had never been known to them even during the imperial tradition of the Roman Empire. The long association to the Americas appears to be second nature to most Italians that fascist propaganda could not be a helpful tool to win public support to imperialism in Africa. Italian skepticism to their right in imperial conquest was also informed by their sad recognition that their country was the weakest power compared to other major powers such as Britain, France, Germany, the USA, and the USSR in terms of economic and military strength. Still more, the fascist invocation of the New Roman Empire did not appeal to the public sense since Ethiopia was outside the geographical realm of the old Roman Empire. Of course one could easily appreciate the lack of public zeal to imperial aspirations when we understand that even fascist leaders had no colonial program to work on in the wake of the fall of Addis Ababa. 38

This is exactly what drove a Fascist journalist, Giorgio Pini, in 1937 to air his proverbial judgment of the state of affairs saying; ‘Having made the empire, we must set about making the imperialist. Hence, once the high tide of wartime nationalism subsided, fascists were left alone. It became clear that the campaign and the subsequent infrastructural needs of the empire represented a huge cost to the state treasury which highly exacted each member of citizens. To the frustration of fascist leaders, poor Italians were not willing to come and settle in Ethiopia; not even Mussolini paid a visit. This practically proved that expansion to Ethiopia was in the imprudent interest of the few. Put simply, devoid of real public support, Italy’s attempted occupation of Ethiopia was built on a precarious foundation too vulnerable to easily quell ‘native’ resistance.40

Thus, it is not difficult to understand why many Italians in every walk-of-life voiced their protest to the Ethiopian campaign well before Italy shot on its feet in joining WW II and precipitated the disintegration of its African empire. Ordinary citizens objected to the war on ideological, economic, and moral grounds. Such critics include individuals who were members of the fascist party. Just to mention few remarks of opposition: Mussolini had to be bigheaded for invading Ethiopia and that Ethiopians were justified in defending their country; that Italians were the real barbarians for killing many Ethi that Italians were the real barbarians for killing many Ethiopians in defense of plans in defense of their freedom; Mussolini would have done better justice had he tried to develop Italian economy; Italian soldiers had unjustly conquered Ethiopia and killed women who refused to be raped; Mussolini and all his family should be boiled in oil or be subjected to even worse punishment. 41

Opposition to the Ethiopian war was not without cost. Mussolini’s heavy-handed rule met such and other criticisms with violence and murder. About a million Italians are said to have been victims of capital punishment by a system infected with patron-client networks and family ties. Although officially fascism regarded allegiance to the state as the supreme value, in practice what mattered for success was belongingness to particular cities and provinces according to the presumed superiority of which Italians were hierarchically categorized. Against such odds, it naturally proved to be tough for fascists to twist the mindset of their subjects in favor of their cause. Instead of being attracted to fascism and imperialism, many fascists continued to be loyal to catholic, liberal, socialist, personal, and humane values and turned out to be mortal enemies to Mussolini and fascism itself.42

Hence, the short assessment about public reaction made above supports the view that the feeling of joy and distress could not be shared equally by the entire population of Italians. For anti-colonial Italians, the defeat at Adwa was simply the logical outcome of the military and political underestimation and misguided foreign policy of their leaders. It could not be a sufficient reason to be ashamed. On the contrary, the tragedy at Dogali and Adwa truly represented an undefendable embarrassment for advocates of colonialism. This implies that the Viva Menelik’ and other condemnatory chants of many Italians might not have been spontaneous outbursts caused by unprecedented and sudden defeat; they might have been candid reflections of the right public opinion about colonial annexation. That is why it would be untenable by available data to argue, as Donald Levine and others asserted that the defeat of Adwa became ‘a national trauma to Italians.43 A military defeat that had no strong mass support could not be a ‘national shame’. Certainly, it was a shame to expansionists all over Europe. Hence, Adwa was good news for blacks and whites who opposed colonial domination. Equally, it was bad news for chauvinist whites and expansionists. It seems to me that the response of other countries, discussed in the next section, strongly points towards this conclusion.

Thus while Africans enjoyed remembering Adwa as a wonderful heritage44, chauvinists had to deliberately relegate it to be a subject for motivated forgetting. In so doing the intention of the Italian state was to undo Italy’s embarrassment for its involvement in the colonial expansion. Thus, the commemoration of the defeat of Adwa was avoided by the Italian leaders in an attempt to hide the country’s unpleasant past and purify public memory from the ‘defeatist syndrome. That is why they managed to avoid public remembrance of Adwa, to prevent defeatist syndrome in the public psyche. The policy of forgetting was changed after Fascists came to power. Fascists felt that the defeat of Adwa represents a military, political and psychological blow to Italy. For them remembering was preferred to forgetting only to initiate the public for revenge. To this effect, the regime capitalized on the ‘shame’ legacy of Adwa to successfully galvanizing public support for revenge, which did not materialize as discussed above. It was at the expense of the wonderful antiwar heritage of many Italians contemporary to Adwa that the Fascists tried to inoculate a sense of guilt and defeat in the memory of their peoples. Hence, the Italian government had to initiate a policy of forgetting a second time after the Second World War. This was done by eradicating things that bear testimony to Italy’s failed colonial history, For instance, the state eliminated the ministry of Italian African in 1953 and Italy’s colonial past was removed from the university curriculum by 1960.45

I would extend the same scheme (of analyzing public response not by race but in terms of forces for and against imperialism) to be applied to understand the reaction to the victory of Adwa elsewhere in the world. The high-sounding military victory of Africans at Adwa had produced a significant change in the mindset of white chauvinists. This surprise found expressions in various media outlets, public square demonstrations, political debates, and other forums. The military gains of African put the ‘natural’ supremacy f whites into question. Whites acknowledged that the African soul, which hitherto was held as lacking human spirit, was not well understood ‘mysterious. White chauvinists were forced to reconsider the premises of their imperial expansion and the correctness of their political ideals. Hence, the Adwa victory was important because it had a critical impact to question and discard the values that initiated imperialism (Social Darwinism). In this vein, the defeat equally goes to all those who signed the Berlin agreement. Hence, from the start, Adwa taught the irrationality of colonial presuppositions and hinted the ultimate success of the struggle for freedom by the oppressed peoples.46

IV. Conclusion

True, the victory of Adwa is rightly understood as a lifetime heritage and a precious jewel to Africans to be proud of and defy white stereotypes. On the whole, however, assessment of the historical significance of the victory of Adwa based on the reaction of blacks to the news of the victory; the enormous coverage accorded to it by media outlets and history books; its role in the Pan-African movement; its inspirational value to other oppressed peoples and the level of panic and shockwave it sent to imperialist circles amounts infinitesimal to the ultimate value of the victory which perhaps would remain too tough to fully comprehend. 

By the late 19th century, Ethiopia was a newly constructed empire consisting of diverse ethnic groups with their own political and religious traditions, but also long-lived interconnections- a condition found to be opportune by the invaders to break Ethiopian resistance. The victory of Adwa was made possible because Ethiopians from all corners of the country came out in solidarity and made selfless human and material sacrifices in defense of a common cause. This unity was maintained not only amidst internal misunderstandings but also in the face of strong divisive propaganda by their enemy. The cooperation that saved the nascent Ethiopian empire from colonialism was a true manifestation of Ethiopian nationalism at work: nationalism that transcends internal oppression and misunderstandings; nationalism that does not barter the nation for enemy propaganda; nationalism that values unity amidst diversity; nationalism that pays dearly for values of freedom and independence and nationalism that puts the nation before anything else.

Today divergent claims exist about the significance of Adwa to Ethiopia among scholars, not necessarily historians, motivated by the desire to provide an intellectual rationale for secessionist movements or centrist political programs. Being politically motivated, some of the discussions advanced about Adwa’s internal significance are simply ahistorical and senseless. As the disunity of Italian peoples was a factor for the defeat of expansionists, so was the unity and sacrifice of all Ethiopian peoples for the victory for which they were not compensated by the state by way of good governance and elimination of exploitative relationships. 

If history is to be consulted for any lesson, the prospect of building a united and prosperous Ethiopia lies in the ability of the present and future generations in enhancing the kind of nationalism their fathers exhibited at Adwa which was built on a sense of belongingness to one another i.e., the bond of fraternity.

adwa worior